Exploring her subjects’ sense of security or insecurity is central to Self’s new exhibition, Home Body. Spread across both of Pilar Corrias’ London-based galleries, the show riffs off the idiom (of being a home-bound, introverted person) to expand on notions of interiority as shaped or defined by domestic interiors. In Self’s paintings, the body is a home unto itself, literally and texturally furnished with feelings and thoughts that flood canvases and walls in blocks of colour and material. This ‘theatre of the mind’, as Self calls it, stretches out into the gallery space in coordinates of stark blues, reds and the artist’s trademark chequerboard print, thereby blurring the boundaries between public and private, the institutional and domestic, the body and psyche, the subject and object. Stepping into these psychodramas, one is invited to meet, sit with, contemplate and, in turn, be contemplated by these complex characters.
I’m sitting with the artist Tschabalala Self, laughing at the human propensity to accumulate needless things. ‘Look at non-human animals,’ Self observes, ‘they’re all about survival. They don’t need the stuff we acquire to feel safe.’ This is a telling remark, one which says a lot about the subjects boldly presented in her paintings and sculptures. We’re perched on top of one of her multi-coloured functional art objects – a gloriously upholstered and steel-wielded stool to you and I – looking at silkscreens of a woman gracefully seated on a chair and a man very much stuck in one. In the gallery adjacent to us, vibrant collagic characters loom large, reclining against furniture or clinging to it, self-consciously languishing in domestic spaces or joyously filling them. ‘So would you say objects amplify our vulnerabilities?’ I say, turning away from these figures to look at Self. ‘Yes, they definitely do, because objects demonstrate a person’s futile attempt at feeling more secure.’
"The homes we seek to create are definitely a reflection of our personalities, aspirations, traumas and relationships"
‘The homes we seek to create are definitely a reflection of our personalities, aspirations, traumas and relationships,’ Self observes. ‘They can be places of togetherness and loneliness.’ Again, that ‘twinge of sadness,’ as Self defines it; that sense of insecurity, isolation and estrangement within the very places we want to feel secure and safe, creeps in again. That these works were made during and post-lockdown, in this para-pandemic era, definitely accounts for the home body to feel, well, unhomely. But Self taps into a deeper anxiety here, one exacerbated by the encroaching ubiquity of social media, the global housing crisis, the existential crises triggered by our wider home, the earth, going into meltdown.
"I want people to find themselves in the pattern"
Despite the pleasure and exuberant joy seen in works like Madly (2022) and Red Room (2022), much of the figures in Self’s work show signs of stress and strain, tense with a need for attention, as espied in All Night (2022); or nakedly vulnerable and lonesome, as witnessed in Somber (2022). That these personae are clad in popping clothes (All Night features a woman attired in red lace boots and an enviable playsuit of chromatic rectangles) and backgrounds blasted with ochres, yellows and mauves, doesn’t belie their loneliness or longing. Rather, colour and pattern accentuate these feelings even more: ‘I wanted viewers to have the opportunity to enter the world of the subjects or see themselves in them, which is why I use fields of colour. I want people to find themselves in the pattern,’ Self asserts. All dressed up with nowhere to go, Self’s figures are caught unawares in their sedentariness, confronted with their solitariness, and subsequently confront us with our own.
Self sees these works as a ‘refinement of themes’ explored in her Performa Biennial commission, Sounding Board (2021). This marvellously surreal play, shown via a recording aptly displayed in the basement of the Eastcastle Street gallery, re-enacts an internalised dialogue between two couples. Perhaps one is a double of the other; perhaps they are two separate, overlapping partnerships verbally duelling with each other. What is certain are the statements they voice: gibes like ‘All eyes are on me baby’ and retorts of ‘How dare you complain when you’re right here too’. These are phrases you think in relationships but don’t voice out loud – or do in the heat of an argument.
"I wanted to show someone in leisure, especially a Black woman, because all this expectation of Black excellence and magic involves hard labour"
Self talks of how this contention occurs in an ‘imagined space,’ a ‘snow-globe home’, where what is being remembered is repeated and ‘magnified’ through bodies, elaborate costumes and music, until resolution occurs. Dramatizing the gender politics played out in the home (the fight to be seen and heard, the desire to be on top or reluctance to relinquish one’s ego), Self interrogates our cultural romanticising of amatory relationships and domesticity itself. Possible couples – or counterparts of sartorially matched men and women – abound, creating in both galleries an extension, another multiplying of those found in the film. Seated in her silkscreen drawings, Self’s visibly gendered pairs look unassumingly calm and content, yet the overlay of 60s print on their clothes suggests social constraints and domestic archetypes may still be a bone of contention between them.
One solitary figure who stands out amongst the couples, capturing my eye as much as my heart, is the woman in Red Room. Moving away from the bodies pastiched and theatricalised in her earlier works – where cultural stereotypes of Black women erupt from canvases to actively challenge viewers’ perceptions – Self creates an arresting vision of a woman luxuriously reclining in a chair, sensuously feeling herself. She is a scene, a mood, a moment all of her own making, awake and alive to a crimson hour of loving and longing – but not for another. This is a sex positive, self-positive portrait of a woman enjoying herself by being herself. Scooped up into a seat, her curvaceous crushed-velvet form and tossed back head of curls occupies our full attention despite hers being solely on herself.
"Textiles trigger memories, feelings, sensations that then touch on other senses. Fabric has the ability to do that"
‘For me, it’s important to use objects because I’m interested in the quotidian, but also because of the associations ‘things’ generate. Take something as universal as velvet. Everyone has their sensory experiences with material outside of sight. Textiles trigger memories, feelings, sensations that then touch on other senses. Fabric has the ability to do that.’ It is here, in her liberal and evocative use of fabric, that Self not only challenges ‘what is an appropriate subject matter, medium and substrate’ for a painting, but also demonstrates the aesthetic pleasure and potential inherent in craft. In these sensual scraps, Self proudly lays claim to African American craft techniques once dismissed, but here unapologetically displayed in the proud, self-loving painting of a woman. Inheriting a legacy from the likes of Faith Ringgold, Rosie Lee Thompkins, and Bisa Butler, Self’s carefully and lovingly crafted works create a space, a room, a home, a body through which to enjoy and celebrate the continuation of this Black feminist artistic canon.
Self’s latest collaboration with Avant Arte in Coal Drops Yard, Seated (2022), is a bold evocation of Black female strength and power at the point of rest, solitude and solitariness, shows how the simple act of sitting can be such a poignant and personally loaded act. Sitting larger than life in a head-to-toe ensemble of yellow on one of Self’s fantastically steel-wielded chairs atop a pink plinth, Seated’s woman is a striking form to behold and be beheld by. Yet, the radicalism of this figure lies in her inaction, her rest, her ‘leisurely’ enjoyment in sitting, doing nothing, and, like the woman in Red Room, just being.
‘I wanted to show someone in leisure, especially a Black woman, because all this expectation of Black excellence and magic involves hard labour. In order to be excellent, you cannot find a relaxing state. We reiterate this to young people all the time: in order for you to be valued, it’s not enough to be decent or good; you have to be excellent, you’ve got to be magical. Then, and only then, people might respect you, but not as much as if you were white and a nobody. How depressing is that? Why should we participate in such a system?’ Sitting at your own leisure in a public place, not working, labouring, even engaging with anyone but yourself; being entirely at home with yourself, is a radical act of self-assertion before a world that either wants to tap Black female selfhood for its own gains or deny its existence entirely. Rendering this woman beautifully, triumphantly, visible, Self hopes other Black women will see themselves and literally take the time simply to sit.
Seated together, discussing radical acts of self-care by being, well, carefree, careless, and caring only about one’s present rest, we consider the places we call home, the spaces where we like to relax (‘with my partner in Hudson watching TV,’ answers Self), where it feels good to sit and think and chill. A city artist though a lover of nature; an advocate of the home body, of the slow but good life, Self sits comfortably and securely surrounded by her colourful subjects. A force-field of silent watchful beings, a crew seated and assembled, ready to do nothing more than just be.
Cover image: Tschabalala Self, Le Consortium (Photo by Daniel Gurton)